Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Pop Music Ponderings: the Decemberists

When there is a band people are talking about, but I haven't heard, I will go and download a bunch of their music and see what it sounds like. If I am not immediately impressed, I will try to listen to it until something clicks and I "get it." For the Decemberists, that moment was with The Mariner's Revenge Song, which opens with these lines:
We are two mariners, the ship's soul survivors
Trapped in this belly of a whale
Its ribs our ceiling beams, its guts our carpeting
I guess we have some time to kill
The third line there was what woke up my brain, and made me think, "This is an awesome song and I have to keep listening." Now, go listen to the song so that I don't have to tell you the entire story. I'm just going to go over the important bits.

The other man (let's call him "the sailor") destroys his mother's livelihood with his gambling debts, then completely disappears. The financial stress drives her mad, and she dies not too long after that, with her dying words to the narrator:
Find him, bind him
Tie him to a pole
And break his fingers to splinters
Throw him in a hole
Until he wake up naked
Clawing at the ceiling of his grave.
The narrator becomes homeless, and after living as an urchin for fifteen years, he is hired by a priory to be their janitor. "But never once in the employ of these holy men did I ever once turn my mind from the thought of revenge."

Then one night, he overhears a whaler talking about his cruel captain, who seems to match the description of the sailor who ruined the narrator's life. So, he leaves immediately and joins with a privateer to go after the sailor, his mother's dying words fresh in his mind.

After twenty months at sea, they finally find the sailor's ship. Before they can do anything, though, a whale destroys both of the ships.
Don't know how I survived
The crew all was chewed alive
I must have slipped between his teeth
But oh, what providence,
What divine intelligence,
That you should survive as well as me


It gives my heart great joy to see your eyes fill with fear
So lean in close and I will whisper the last words you'll hear
Those are the last words of the song, but the music it ends with is the music that accompanies his mother's plea for revenge.

One might also be reminded of Moby Dick, where Ahab tries to get revenge on the white whale, only to have his ship destroyed and nearly all of his crew killed. (I hope I didn't just spoil the book for you.) This album is called "Picaresque," and the picaresque genre is about anti-heros and lower-class rogues. We the audience want to cheer him on as he dies getting his vengeance.

What I find most striking about this song is the number of religious elements involved in his quest for revenge. Working in the priory both gets him back on his feet, and gives him a lead on tracking down the sailor. Getting swallowed by the whale is in some works a time for salvation (like in the book of Jonah in the Bible, not to mention Pinocchio), but here the whale is the final act of "providence" and "divine intelligence" that allows him to finally get his revenge. This is the typical realm of irony in which the Decemberists work.

Is there some additional satirical message here? I don't know. "Sixteen Military Wives" is most definitely a satire of Bush foreign policy. One could make the case that this has a similar message behind it, pointing out the ideological contradiction not only in using Chrisitanity as a justification for war, but as a justification for revenge. The message may be a far more general one, though: God is not about revenge, and you are a low-life rogue if you think He is.

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